Since his meeting on immigration with a bipartisan group of lawmakers last Thursday, President Donald Trump has been caught in a domestic and international firestorm over his alleged referral of Haiti, EL Salvador, and African nations as “shithole countries.” After the meeting, Assistant Minority Leader Dick Durbin revealed that the president asked why America should have any reason to prioritize immigrants from these troubled nations over those from countries like “Norway.” The comment coming four days before Martin Luther King Day, the bipartisan response was swift and decisive. Republican Representative Mia Love, the sole representative in Congress of Haitian descent, called the President’s remarks “unkind, divisive, and elitist,” while many other Republican lawmakers, such as Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, said they were “disappointing.” Several prominent Democrats, including Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, were emboldened to condemn the President as a “racist,” an accusation that Democrats had hitherto refrained from explicitly making against the President.
Undoubtedly, Donald Trump’s expletive comments have exacerbated the already dismal race relations in the United States and muddled what looked like initially promising bipartisan efforts on immigration reform. Just as devastatingly, however, the President’s comments have compromised his ability to lead effectively in the international arena. The African Union, made up of 55 member states on the continent, was “frankly alarmed” by Trump’s comment and said that it “hurt…[the two union’s] reciprocal understanding.” Meanwhile, Botswana summoned the U.S. ambassador “to express its displeasure of the alleged utterances,” and South Africa has issued a formal diplomatic protests over Trump’s “shithole” comments. Even the U.N. high commissioner for human rights weighed in, referring to the president’s words as “shocking, shameful,…and racist.”
The international ire caused by these remarks fits into a broad pattern of behavior by the American president that can only be viewed as an assault on America’s leadership credibility in the international arena. Trump’s scrapping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership days into his presidency made America’s word little better than mud in trade policy and forfeited the U.S. the opportunity to lead an Asian trading union that would have acted as a heavy counterweight against China’s formidable power in the region. His decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord shocked world leaders, made his administration look alternatively selfish or stupid, and precluded the United States from having any influence over the world’s climate policy. Meanwhile, his unilateral decision to move the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his many efforts assailing the Iran Nuclear Deal have suggested that he prioritizes pleasing his base and dismantling his predecessor’s legacy over seeking sustainable security in the Middle East. Finally, his single-minded and unwavering support of the Saudi regime and his effusive reaction to a falsely fawning China have proven that well-selected flattery can go far in ensuring that Trump will give a tyrannical country what it craves.
However, Trump’s comments toward Africa are especially troubling because the United States has never enjoyed close ties with most African nations, not least because of its long history of slavery and racism. Unlike U.S. relations with European countries, U.S. relations with Africa are not underpinned by a formal alliance like NATO and do not feature the same solid commitment to liberal democracy or a comparable level of long-term cooperation and historical indebtedness. Unlike East and Southeast Asian nations, African counties do not fear the rise of Chinese power and will not flee into the arms of the American protector. In fact, the United States is far freer from commitments in Sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region of the world, which means it owes far less to America and does not fear a world order in which the U.S. is no longer the world’s de facto super power. America’s historical shortcomings on the issue of slavery and its continued struggle with race relations only make the U.S. relationship with Africa more complex and potentially treacherous, demanding that Americans act with the utmost care in fostering U.S.-African relations. Instead, the President has severely blundered by unwittingly insulting them all by “talking tough” on a domestic issue of immigration in a peculiarly childish and uninformed way.
The issue at hand is not that Trump’s “shithole” comment will single-handedly dismantle effective relations between African nations and the United States. It is that it betrays a deep-seated racism that calls into question his ability to form sound African policy and interact fruitfully with African leaders. This threatens to tear relations and prevent mutually beneficial cooperation. China, America’s greatest geopolitical rival in shaping the world order, would certainly welcome such a turn of events. Between 2000 and 2014, China-Africa trade increased more than 20-fold from $10 billion to $220 billion, and China’s foreign direct investment stocks in the continent have risen from a mere 2% of U.S. levels to 55%. Under Communist Party Leader Xi Jinping, China’s Belt and Road Initiative promises to spend one trillion dollars on infrastructure in order to connect Asia, Europe, and Africa in a modern-day Silk Road. Amidst all this, China recently opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti. These efforts have made China more popular in Africa than in all other regions of the world, and there are almost as many Africans who think China provides the best model for national development as those who think the United States does.
All of this suggests African nations are cozying up to China at the same time they are growing more skeptical of an inward-looking America. Trump’s racist comments only serve to exacerbate this trend. African nations are vital partners in U.S.-led efforts against domestic terrorism and are highly important in American international trade. They contain some of the fastest-growing populations in the world, and their economic might and international importance will only increase with time. Falling under the primary influence of China, these countries will grow to care less about American trade and security interests and drift even further from efforts aimed at forming a sustainable liberal democratic society. For a thoughtful, introspective, and careful leader, this critical juncture for American foreign relations would be a pressing, difficult, and energizing task. For President Trump, it does not even seem to register.